Why We Sleep – #Sleep and Learning

two hands playing the piano
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Sleep has proven itself time and again as a memory aid: both before learning, to prepare your brain for initially making new memories, and after learning, to cement those memories and prevent forgetting.

Matthew Walker, Why We Sleep

If we sleep before learning, we are giving our brain the time to get ready for new information. If we just keep learning and learning all day long, surprisingly, it is not unlikely that we are still concentrated, but as a matter of fact, there might not be any capacity left to save new information. However, if we take a nap before a learning session, our brain will have the time to recover and make space for new content. Simultaneously, if we sleep after learning, we are giving our brain the time to actually process and store the learned content. If you want to dive deeper into the topic and the science behind sleeping before and after learning, I highly recommend chapter six of Why We Sleep.

While reading the book, one aspect of sleeping, learning and how to store new information, really stood out to me: skill memory. The author describes a situation in which a pianist walked up to him after a lecture about sleep and confronted him with an experience that this pianist kept making in his profession often enough for it to be just a coincidence:

„I will be practicing a particular piece, even late into the evening, and I cannot seem to master it. Often, I make the same mistake at the same place in a particular movement. I go to bed frustrated. But when I wake up the next morning and sit back down at the piano, I can just play, perfectly.“

I don’t know if you have ever experienced something similar, but when I was reading this, my thoughts went: „Yeeeeees, totally!!!!“ Funnily enough, and even though I am really not very good at it, I also experienced it when practicing my piano.

But how does it work?

As Walker points out, we would probably think: practice makes perfect, which in this case does not seem to be true. It would have to be practice plus sleep makes perfect!? Again, he conducted his own studies with „a large group of right-handed individuals and had them learn to type a number sequence on a keyboard with their left hand, such as 4-1-3-2-4 , as quickly and as accurately as possible.“ He would have them do that „over and over again, for a total of twelve minutes, taking short breaks throughout.“

As you can imagine, all participants improved within those twelve minutes. However, one half of the group did the described training in the morning and was tested again that same day after approximately twelve hours. The other half of the group did the training in the evening and was then tested the next morning, also after approximately twelve hours but with the difference of being granted „a full eight-hour night of sleep.“ What do you think happened?

Exactly, just as the pianist had observed:

„Those who remained awake across the day showed no evidence of a significant improvement in performance. However, fitting with the pianist’s original description, those who were tested after the very same time delay of twelve hours, but that spanned a night of sleep, showed a striking . . . jump in performance speed and . . . accuracy.“ As he went on with further testings, he saw this behaviour confirmed over and over again (see chapter six of his book).

Isn’t this crazy? I thought so. At least crazy enough that I wanted to share it with you. So next time you can’t practice something to perfection, don’t beat yourself up about it. Instead, simply go to bed and get a good night of sleep knowing that this will do.

Your brain will continue to improve skill memories in the absence of any further practice. It is really quite magical.

Matthew Walker, Why We Sleep


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